A Pure Heart: Refining Character and Balancing Values

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

 

DEVELOPING A TORAH PERSONALITY

Yeshivat Har Etzion

 


Based on addresses by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Rav Reuven Ziegler

 

 

LECTURE #11

A Pure Heart: Refining Character and Balancing Values

 

 

REPENTANCE FOR NEGATIVE CHARACTER TRAITS

I would like to focus on a single passage in the Rambam, which offers a fundamental perspective on the spiritual life, as expressed in both moral and religious terms.

 

You ought not say that teshuva (repentance) applies only to sins which entail action, such as fornication, robbery, and theft. Rather, just as a person needs to repent from these, so too he needs to probe which bad character traits (de’ot ra’ot) he may have, and to repent from them: anger, enmity, envy, frivolity, the pursuit of wealth and honor, the pursuit of foods, and the like. From all of this, a person needs to repent. And these sins are more difficult than those which entail an action, for when a person becomes immersed in these, it is very difficult to part from them. And so says the verse (Yeshayahu 55:7), “Let the evil person forsake his path, and the iniquitous person his thoughts.” (Hilkhot Teshuva 7:3)

 

            The Rambam posits two categories: “sins which entail action,” with respect to which everyone agrees that teshuva is essential, and “bad character traits,” with regard to which some people presumably would claim that teshuva is irrelevant. What is the distinction between these two categories?

 

            The Rambam does not distinguish here between sins of action and sins of thought. Rather, he broadens the concept of teshuva to include repentance not only from clearly defined halakhic sin but also from that which initially one might not regard as a formal sin at all.

 

            There are specifically designated and halakhically formulated sins which relate not to one’s deeds but rather to one’s mindset, to one’s psychological inclinations. For example, if a person entertains thoughts denying God’s existence, he has transgressed a prohibition (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 1:6). If a person is full of hatred for a fellow Jew—a focused hatred, not just some general anger at the world—then he has violated the sin of “hat[ing] your brother in your heart” (Vayikra 19:17). The Chovot Ha-levavot in particular champions the need for sensitivity to this type of commandment. Nevertheless, in the context of this passage in the Rambam, these constitute “sins that entail action.”

 

            In the early chapters of Hilkhot Teshuva, the Rambam spoke of the need to repent from those sins that are clearly defined as such—and in this context it is immaterial whether they are what the Chovot Ha-levavot would categorize as “duties of the limbs” or “duties of the heart.” However, in our passage, the Rambam extends the need for teshuva to areas which, in concrete halakhic categories, we would find very difficult to proscribe. Although in a narrow halakhic sense these bad traits are not “sins,” the Rambam here uses this term to describe them. This suggests that, while these are not formally classified under a particular transgression, nevertheless, to the extent that they are corrosive to one’s optimal spiritual personality, they are sinful.

 

SPIRITUALLY CORROSIVE, BUT NOT SPECIFICALLY PROHIBITED

Let us examine the Rambam’s examples.

 

            ANGER: The Rambam considered anger an extremely bad trait. When he formulated his golden mean, the median route a person should follow in his character traits, he specifically excluded anger: it is always proscribed (Hilkhot De’ot 2:3). As support, he cites the gemara (Shabbat 105b): “Whoever loses his temper, it is as if he has worshipped idols.” Anger is dehumanizing; it expresses a loss of self-control. Instead of a person being the master of his passions, he has become their slave. This is why it is “as if he has worshipped idols:” idolatry means handing over control to something else. However, to my knowledge, there is no verse in the Torah or ruling in the Shulchan Arukh that tells us what transgression such a person has committed.

 

            HATRED: There are specific prohibitions against hatred, such as the above-cited verse: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart” (Vayikra 19:17). However, I believe the Rambam is not referring to this focused prohibition. Suppose that one hates people who are not included in this prohibition, which speaks very specifically of “your brother,” your fellow Jew. If a person has great love for his brethren, but hates everybody else, he still falls under the purview of this passage in the Rambam, for he has a poisoned personality, a personality full of bitterness and enmity, a personality that is rotten to the core. In this passage, the Rambam speaks of the need to uproot hatred from one’s heart, not because of its impact upon those who are the objects of his hatred, but rather because hatred is a cancer which consumes one’s moral and psychological self.

 

            ENVY: Chazal expressed very strong words about envy: “Rabbi Eliezer Ha-kappar said: Envy, lust and honor remove a person from this world” (Avot 4:21). This refers to a person who has a passionate, sometimes obsessive, quest for the object of his lust or envy. One might interpret the mishna to mean that these remove a person from the World-to-Come. But I think that anyone who knows people who are totally consumed by envy, lust and honor realizes that such people have effectively removed themselves from “this world” as well. Even if there are circumstances where envy is not formally prohibited, it nevertheless is to be avoided since it is a “bad character trait.”

 

            FRIVOLITY: The Rambam’s term “hittul” combines two sins mentioned in the “Al Chet” litany recited on Yom Kippur: latzon and kalut rosh, scoffing and lightheadedness. This term describes a person lacking what Matthew Arnold called “high seriousness.” The book of Mishlei takes a very low view of leitzanut, or mocking frivolity, and likewise Chazal declare: “All leitzanut is prohibited, unless it is directed against idolatry” (Megilla 25b). It is a quality of heart and soul, which certainly does not make for the optimal spiritual life. The first verse in Tehillim declares, “Happy is the man ... who does not sit in a gathering of leitzim”— we do not want to be seen in their company. But, again, there is no specific prohibition here.

 

            PURSUIT OF WEALTH, HONOR OR FOOD: These categories may impinge on actual prohibitions. For example, we find two problems mentioned in conjunction with the rebellious son: first, “he does not hearken to our voice,” showing a lack of honor for his parents, and second, “he is a glutton and a drunkard” (Devarim 21:20). While the former violates one of the Ten Commandments, what is the prohibition against the latter? The Sefer Yere’im (275) writes that this violates the prohibition of “You shall not walk in their statutes” (Vayikra 18:3), while the Ramban (Devarim 21:18) suggests that it violates either the injunction to be holy (Vayikra 19:2) or to serve God and cleave to Him (Devarim 13:5). Nevertheless, it is hard to define glut- tony as a prohibition per se. Likewise, pursuit of wealth is undesirable, and the prophet Yeshayahu rails against those who “love bribes and are greedy for gifts” (1:23). The problem he denounces is not limited to dishonesty in government, but includes the obsessive passion for the accumulation of wealth. Lastly, while pursuit of honor may seem nobler than the other two pursuits, it still is not the spiritual path a person should follow. Yet, while all three of these pursuits are spiritually corrosive, they are not focused prohibitions.

 

WHY WOULD ONE PRESUME TESHUVA TO BE IRRELEVANT HERE?

As noted, the Rambam believes that many readers might be inclined to regard repentance as confining itself to sin in the strict sense, but not relating to the more general qualities of heart and soul that characterize a person’s self and his lifestyle.Why would one imagine that teshuva does not relate to these things? There might be two answers, one concerning the difficulty of teshuva in these cases, and the other related to its necessity.

 

            One might imagine that a person is not in a position to achieve teshuva in a meaningful sense with regard to basic character traits. First, there is no particular action which you can regret and recant. Second, many people are likely to be of a more deterministic cast regarding character traits, assuming that perhaps one can change his habits, but it is beyond a person’s reach to change his mindset or psychological constitution.

 

            On the other hand, one might assume that teshuva here is possible but that it is unnecessary, and this from several perspectives. Many adhere to the school of thought that one’s character traits are essentially neutral matters, morally speaking, as long as you do not hurt anyone. By this I do not mean people who hold John Stuart Mill’s view that government should not interfere except in interpersonal matters; Mill certainly thought that, as far as morality is concerned, it makes a great deal of difference what kind of person you are. But there are people who are far more liberal than Mill, and assume that even your character traits are entirely a matter of choice, as long as you do not bother anyone.

 

            There are some who would go even further and idealize possessing some measure of envy, frivolity or greed, in order to be able to resist them. They understand the dictum, “Who is a hero? He who overcomes his inclination” (Avot 4:1), as indicating that you should have an inclination to overcome. The Rambam rejects this and stresses the need to repent from these negative traits, because Halakha poses demands and standards regarding character traits no less than with regard to more defined sins.

 

“THESE SINS ARE MORE DIFFICULT”

In the continuation of our passage, the Rambam posits that “these sins are more difficult (kashin) than those which entail an action.” In what sense is this true?

 

            Some Acharonim have suggested that this is a paraphrase of the gemara (Yoma 29a), “Thoughts of sin are more difficult (kashin) than sin.” Rashi understands the term “thoughts of sin” as being sexual in nature; the gemara says that it is more difficult to inhibit forbidden sexual fantasy than it is to refrain from an actual sexual infraction. There is a certain line which needs to be crossed if a person is going to transgress a sexual prohibition, and a person can restrain himself more easily from crossing that line. Firstly, he has a clearer and a sharper sense of the fact that this is indeed wrong. Secondly, it is something which requires initiative on his part, and he can prevent that. However, it is more difficult to restrain fantasies. This explanation of the gemara understands kashin in the sense of difficulty.

 

            In his Guide of the Perplexed (3:8), the Rambam interprets the gemara differently: kashin does not refer to the difficulty of preventing thoughts of sin, but rather to their severity. In a sense (though not in the strictly halakhic sense), thoughts of sin are worse than the sin itself, for the center of the human personality is the heart or mind, and not the body. If a person has sinned with his hands or feet, he has defiled some peripheral and marginal aspects of his selfhood. But if a person sins with his heart, his passions, his thoughts, he has defiled the epicenter of his spiritual personality, and that is, in a sense, worse. Here we have an indication of the seriousness with which the Rambam took one’s inner being.

 

A DIFFERENT TYPE OF TESHUVA: MOLDING OF PERSONALITY

Chapter Seven of Hilkhot Teshuva contains some formulations that appear surprising at first. After speaking vigorously in Chapters Five and Six about the power of human freedom, the Rambam at the beginning of our chapter draws an inference from this:

 

Since every person is endowed with free will, as we have explained, he should try to perform teshuva and confess his sins verbally and renounce them, so that he may die penitent and thus be worthy of the World-to-Come. (7:1)

 

            The Rambam’s formulation—“he should try”—is uncharacteristic. Does Hilkhot Shofar stipulate that a person should “try” to hear the shofar? One is obligated, and there is nothing more to say. We are accustomed to hearing the Rambam speak in normative and imperative terms, presenting a substantive and absolute demand.

 

            Another noteworthy formulation is the duration of this attempt at teshuva; apparently, he is talking about a lifelong enterprise.

 

            Clearly, in light of the two chapters on free will, Chapter Seven presents a different modality of teshuva than the earlier chapters. Chapters One and Two deal with teshuva as a very specific halakhic performance, which has a focused mechayyev (obligating factor) and mode of fulfillment. After committing a specific sin, there is a focused response, composed of defined stages: abandoning sin, regret, resolve for the future and confession to God. In Chapters One and Two, the Rambam focuses particularly upon viddui, confession.

 

            But, moving to Chapter Seven, if a person is guilty of, for example, frivolity, at what point does he engage in confession? Does he confess a particular incident of frivolity, as he would confess to having eaten ham on a specific occasion? I doubt it. I have no proof that it is not so, but it seems unlikely that there is this focused kind of confession when we speak of a general quest, a personal housecleaning.

 

            Clearly, we have here an extension of teshuva in two senses.

 

            First, in terms of the ambience: the first two chapters speak about teshuva in a very narrow context—there was a sin and there must be a response of teshuva. Here the Rambam speaks of something else entirely, namely, the molding of the human personality, the maximization of one’s spiritual self and the realization of his psychological, moral and religious potential. It is to this end that the Rambam offers what seems an exaggerated description of the lack of bounds of human freedom: “Every human being is free to become righteous like Moshe our Teacher or wicked like Yeravam. . .” (Hilkhot Teshuva 5:2).

 

            Second, the Rambam extends the scope of teshuva, in the manner we mentioned before—one must repent not only from sins, but from all kinds of other flaws as well.

 

            These two extensions are related. A very focused procedure of teshuva, as in the first two chapters, needs to have an object to which it relates, and that object must be a particular sin. By contrast, in building a personality, we focus not only on one’s literal obedience to the Shulchan Arukh, but, in the broader sense, on the extent to which he forms himself in line with what tzelem Elokim (the image of God) should be. That may entail many factors which are of great significance to the religious life, but not necessarily classified, narrowly speaking, in particular halakhic categories.

 

            The interplay between the earlier chapters and Chapter Seven highlights one aspect of the total religious balance we seek. One certainly must relate to every jot and tittle of formal Halakha, and beyond this, also to moral qualities. Today we speak of a person as being a ba’al teshuva (penitent) when he first led a life of sin and lacked commitment, and then decided to serve God. In Chapter Seven, the Rambam speaks of people who already serve God, and says that each person must attempt to be a ba’al teshuva, in the sense that he endeavors to remove himself from sin and to maximize his potential. This is a process, an effort, a direction: “he should try to perform teshuva” (7:1). Teshuva is not just a response to particular sins, but a lifelong enterprise of building oneself, and therefore everyone should think of himself as a ba’al teshuva.

 

INWARDNESS IN JUDAISM

The Rambam’s move to an area of greater inward or spiritual thrust invites a brief glance at where Judaism stands with regard to the element of inwardness.

 

            Some very central and cardinal mitzvot are “duties of the heart:” love and fear of God, teshuva, prayer, service of God, etc. Nevertheless, the bulk of mitzvot relate to actions, and Judaism takes action very seriously. What of intention that does not come to expression in action? Clearly, a person should try to distance himself emotionally and psychologically from sin. Yet, the gemara (Kiddushin 40a) tells us that God is very liberal with regard to intention. If a person entertained the thought to perform a mitzva, but failed to do it due to some external reason, it is considered as if he had performed it. However, if a person wanted to commit a sin, but for some reason he did not succeed—his gun misfired or he did not aim properly—it is not considered as if he committed the transgression. In terms of evaluating the person, his murderous inclinations are very negative, but we do not regard him as a murderer in the moral sense. This is opposed to the Kantian conception that defining an action as good or bad depends on one’s intention, not on what actually happens.

 

            The element of inwardness relates not just to intention but also to motivation. Are we concerned only with one’s actions, or also with his reasons for acting? This has halakhic ramifications when dealing with the question of mitzvot tzerikhot kavvana—is it enough technically to perform the mitzva, or must the person be impelled by the intent and desire to fulfill the mitzva? This entails a detailed halakhic discussion, but suffice it to note that there are many statements of Chazal which indeed focus on the inner element— for example, “God desires the heart” (Sanhedrin 106b).

 

            Unquestionably, we strive to recognize the importance of both elements: external action and inwardness. Not only do we believe that a person’s actions influence his inner self,which would suggest that the inner self is our ultimate concern, but we also clearly ascribe importance to one’s actions per se. In moral terms, our actions impact upon society, and in mystical and metaphysical terms, every mitzva performance illuminates a light on the celestial switchboard, so to speak. Thus, those who engage in the search for ta’amei ha-mitzvot (reasons for the commandments) can posit a number of categories: mitzvot which aim to attain practical results, mitzvot oriented towards inner being, and mitzvot with a dual focus. An instance of the last category would be the mitzva of tzedaka (charity), which intends both to provide the needs of the poor and to educate the affluent.

 

            In many places, the Rambam too insists upon balancing the external and the internal. Take, for example, his famous conclusion to Sefer Tahara. Although, he says, the realm of tum’a and tahara (impurity and purity) is supra-rational, as is the immersion which absolves a person of tum’a—“for tum’a is not mud or filth which water can remove, but is a matter of Scriptural decree and dependent on the intention of the heart”—nevertheless, there is an axiological message here as well:

 

Just as one who sets his heart on purification becomes pure as soon as he has immersed himself, although nothing has changed physically, so too a person who sets his heart on purifying himself from the impurities that beset people’s souls— namely, thoughts of evil and bad character traits [which we encountered earlier in Hilkhot Teshuva]—is purified as soon as he decides in his heart to distance himself from these counsels and brings his soul into the waters of pure reason . . . (Hilkhot Mikvaot 11:12)

 

THE NEED FOR BALANCE

To a great extent, in Chapter Seven of Hilkhot Teshuva the Rambam is trying to redress an imbalance in the earlier chapters. The earlier chapters indeed gave a narrow picture of teshuva and therefore a confined image of spiritual and religious life. It was limited in the sense that it related to very specific and focused events, as opposed to a general continuum encompassing the totality of one’s being. And it was narrowly focused inasmuch as it dealt only with strictly defined sins. One’s religious life should not be confined to observance in the narrow sense; instead, it must be viewed in broader terms. The Rambam does not want to negate what he said previously, but rather to complement, extend and balance it.

 

            Balance, for the Rambam, is very important. We have already noted that in Hilkhot De’ot he idealizes balance as an equipoise between two extremes. Throughout his works, the Rambam stresses its importance in different areas of one’s life: action, emotion, thought, one’s personal, social, religious and moral self. This follows the comment of Chazal (Mo’ed Katan 5a) on the verse (Tehillim 50:23), “To him that orders his way (ve-sam derekh), I will show the salvation of God”—“Do not read ve-sam, but rather ve-sham,” meaning, counting and weighing; a person who considers and balances his path will behold God’s salvation.

 

            Some people instinctively react against the notion of balance, regarding it as being tepid, placid and overly rationalistic. They feel that the power, passion and intensity of a more total and unbalanced commitment is preferable in religious life. They idealize a different midrash (Bereishit Rabba 40:2), on the verse (Tehillim 111:5), “He has given food (teref) to those who fear Him,” reading teiruf (madness) instead of teref. The idealization of Divine madness, the madness of commitment, sounds much more attractive and powerful—it is not constrained, constricted, limited or defined; it knows no bounds or limits.

 

            I submit that, for the Rambam, there is a need to strike the proper balance between madness and rationality. The Rambam, too, certainly knows of teiruf; he speaks of the love of God as “great, exceedingly intense . . . like one who is lovesick” (Hilkhot Teshuva 10:3). So the rational Rambam, the Rambam of balance, the Rambam of defining limits and seeking equipoise, is also the Rambam who speaks of an all-consuming love. For the Rambam, more broadly viewed, the element of balance as a condition of one’s ideal service of God requires some balance between teiruf and ve-sham derekh as well.

 

TAILORING THE MESSAGE TO THE AUDIENCE

Now, if a person advocates a balanced view and tries to maintain equilibrium between various values and goals, he will very often find himself, depending on his historical circumstances or social context, speaking a very different language when addressing varying audiences. If a person finds that his interlocutor is failing with regard to one aspect of the ideal balance, then obviously he must tailor his message to counteract the imbalance.

 

            For example, if one addresses an audience which is very punctilious with regard to the technical, formal aspects of Halakha, but perhaps not so careful about the vices the Rambam discusses here—maybe they are very cautious about tzitzit and tefillin, but not so cautious about the pursuit of honor—then the message may very well be, without minimizing the importance of tzitzit and tefillin, that this is not sufficient. It then may seem to someone who later reads his words, without taking into account his intended audience, that this is a person who tries to moralize and ethicize the religious life, playing down its more technical and formal aspect.

 

            If the reverse should be true, and a person finds himself in front of an audience that is very deeply committed morally and ethically but is not so careful about details of Halakha, the tone and the thrust of the message will be different. One will stress that being moral is insufficient; if a Jew wants to serve God, he also has to follow Halakha. In either case, the total message will be balanced, but the way it is presented will be very different.

 

            Thus, if one strives for balance, yet finds himself in a situation (either within his own being or in relation to others) where there is a perceived imbalance, his choice of which elements to stress obviously depends on circumstances and on whom he is addressing.

 

OUR TASK

This is true of the Rambam, and it should also be true of us. If we try to build a proper hashkafa of Torah, Halakha and emuna, there is no question but that we need to see the total picture. The grandeur and the majesty of Halakha lie precisely in its comprehensiveness. This total picture must encompass thought, action and emotion; it must be seen from social, historical and personal perspectives and must include all the moral and religious elements one needs in order to maximize his standing as an oved Hashem and to be fully responsive to God’s call.

 

            However, each of us is capable of going only so far in trying to implement everything. Every person and every period has its own emphases and, therefore, its own deficiencies. Every so often, someone will arise and sound the clarion, challenging not only what is being neglected, but sometimes even what is being done. Imbalance can be sinful—a sacrifice brought by an immoral person is rejected by God: “The offering of evildoers is an abomination” (Mishlei 21:27). The same holds true of his prayer: “Though you pray at length, I will not listen” (Yeshayahu 1:15).

 

            In other contexts, the rejection may not be as severe, but a critique of imbalance will appear. In their respective introductions, the Chovot Ha-levavot and the Mesillat Yesharim were critical of those who overemphasized theoretical learning while ignoring the more pietistic aspects of religion; R. Yisrael Salanter critiqued what he felt to be a moral deficiency within his Torah community; the Chassidim critiqued what they felt to be an emotional deficiency in the Torah-observant community.

 

            We are challenged, personally and communally, to strive for balance, to strive for comprehensiveness and particularly for the balance between the inner and the outer that is so critical to the character and content of Halakha. We are challenged to be honest with ourselves and to ask not only what particular sins we should repent, but also, looking at the broader picture which the Rambam paints, what is our particular area of need, what needs to be strengthened and emphasized.

 

            Here the answers may differ, depending on the audience. This is not because the total message is different, but because the particular teshuva which a person requires is a function of where he is now. Additionally, the ideal balance is not a uniform one; it may differ from one person to another, partly as a function of historical circumstances, and partly as a function of one’s personal inclinations.

 

            A person’s spiritual accounting should include a focus both on the overarching challenges of the first two chapters of Hilkhot Teshuva and on the more personalized challenge of Chapter Seven. To what extent are we tainted in one respect or another? What kind of balance do we need to strike between Chapter Seven and the first two chapters? This, too, differs from one person to another.

 

            In one respect, teshuva is uniform, and in other respects, in terms of substantive content and emphasis, it is diverse. The challenge of teshuva is not only to be attentive and responsive to its demand, but also to be honest and sensitive in one’s self-evaluation— to try to understand how the mitzva of teshuva needs to be tailored for you personally within your particular context. When that effort is made, when teshuva is indeed comprehensive and constant, when we strive for the proper balance with an awareness of what, in the totality of religious life, is demanded of us, then we can stand in good conscience before the Almighty and ask and hope for His forgiveness. We have tried to do what we can, and He, for His part, can fulfill the promise:

 

For on this day will He forgive you, to purify you, that you may be pure of all your sins before God. (Vayikra 16:30)

 

NOTES:

 

1          Before we speak of teshuva for bad character traits, there is an antecedent premise, namely, that there is something wrong with possessing these traits. This assumption is of relevance not only to teshuva, but to other areas as well.

In his commentary Avodat Ha-melekh on Hilkhot De’ot 6:7, R. Menachem Krakowski notes a parallel between that passage and the one we are discussing. The former reads:

If a person sees his fellow sinning or pursuing a path which is not good, it is a mitzva to bring him back to the right path and to inform him that he is sinning with regard to himself by his wrong deeds, as it says, “You should reproach your fellow” (Vayikra 19:17).

            One of the Rambam’s sources for this ruling (Berakhot 31b) derives the law that “a person who sees his fellow doing something improper must reproach him” from Eli’s reproach to Chana when he thought that she was intoxicated (I Shemuel 1:14). Tosafot (ad loc., s.v. davar) comment that this gemara refers to one who is doing something “improper,” but which is not prohibited, strictly speaking. If the act were truly prohibited, the requirement to rebuke would fall under the rubric of “You should reproach your fellow,” and we would not have to derive it from a verse in Shemuel.

            The Rambam clearly thinks otherwise. The Rambam’s formulation, “pursuing a path which is not good,” is a paraphrase of the gemara’s term, “doing something improper.” (Perhaps the latter refers more to a specific and focused incident, while the former refers to a general lifestyle or orientation, but in terms of halakhic status they are very similar.) Nevertheless, the Rambam says that the obligation to critique such conduct falls under the biblical commandment of reproof, and is not to be derived from the verse in Shemuel. Having distinguished conceptually between “sin” and “pursuing a path which is not good,” the Rambam finds it necessary to establish in Hilkhot De’ot that tokhecha, reproof, applies even to the latter.

            The Avodat Ha-melekh thus points to a parallel in Hilkhot Teshuva 7:3, where the Rambam extends the need for repentance (not reproof) to that which is improper but not strictly a sin. Both of these passages assume that there is something wrong with “improper behavior” or “bad traits,” even if they are not subsumed under formally defined categories of sin. Since these are spiritually corrosive, they too are to be regarded as sins.

            Note that in Hilkhot De’ot the Rambam suggests that the approach to be taken with one who acts “improperly” is not to tell him that he is sinning against God and the Torah, but rather that he is sinning against himself, or undercutting his own spiritual being. However, in Hilkhot Teshuva the Rambam does not restrain himself and says that these bad traits are actually sins. The reason for this could be pragmatic: in Hilkhot De’ot the Rambam is concerned with finding an effective form of reproof, while in Hilkhot Teshuva he is trying to sensitize the reader to the scope of repentance and the severity of bad character traits.

2          It would seem that the Rambam’s concern is well founded. For example, how many people today would view gluttony as one of the seven cardinal sins, as it was regarded in medieval Christian thought? Nevertheless, gluttony should be a major concern for us. The gemara (Megilla 12a) asks why the Jews of Shushan initially had been doomed to perdition. It answers, “Because they partook of the feast of that wicked man [Achashverosh].” What was the problem with this? Was the food not kosher? The straightforward understanding of this gemara is that, even if the food was strictly kosher, there is moral rot and corruption involved in taking part in a party lasting one hundred and eighty days. The border between a passion for consumption and responsibility for production, between hedonistic exploitation of the world and useful employment, is a very significant one. [This theme is elaborated in Lecture #1.]

3          In light of this, we can understand the problematic clause, “so that he may . . . be worthy of the World-to-Come.” The Rambam was a great champion of avoda li-shmah, service for its own sake. If a person serves God in order to attain reward, this is categorized as “service not for its own sake,” as he makes clear in Chapter Ten of Hilkhot Teshuva. How, then, can he advocate such service here? Since the Rambam is talking about a lifelong effort at teshuva, his mention of the penitent’s worthiness of reward refers to the result of the teshuva, not its motivation.

4          This parallels the Ramban’s comments (Vayikra 19:2) on a naval bireshut ha-Torah, a scoundrel with Torah license.

5          See, e.g., Sefer Ha-chinukh, 16:

Know that a person is influenced in accordance with his actions. His heart and all his thoughts are always [drawn] after his deeds in which he is occupied, whether [they are] good or bad. Thus, even a person who is thoroughly wicked in his heart . . . — if he will arouse his spirit and set his striving and his occupation, with constancy, in the Torah and the mitzvot, even if not for the sake of Heaven, he will veer at once toward the good, and with the power of his good deeds he will deaden his evil impulse. For one’s heart is drawn after his actions. And even if a man should be thoroughly righteous . . . but he engages constantly in impure matters . . . then at some point in time he will turn from the righteousness of his heart to become completely wicked. For it is a known and true matter that every man is influenced in accordance with his actions, as we have stated.

            6 This is why the Rambam finds it necessary to dispute an imaginary adversary in Hilkhot Teshuva 7:3 (“You ought not say that teshuva applies only to sins which entail action...”). Usually, he is not concerned with what you might think, but rather tells you what to think. In our passage, what forces him to relate to possible misconceptions? Beyond sociological considerations, the reason is that the Rambam himself has paved the way for this misconception by focusing on specifically designated sins until this point in Hilkhot Teshuva. For example, the caption to Hilkhot Teshuva reads: “A person who has sinned should repent from his sin before God and confess”—from a particular sin, one which can be the object of confession. In the opening halakha, he writes that teshuva is necessitated by transgression of “any commandment of the Torah,” but what about things that are not “commandments of the Torah,” such as anger, enmity, envy, frivolity, etc.? One might conclude that those are not included. The detailed discussion in the first two chapters about that which obligates teshuva and about the techniques of teshuva all revolve around this opening. The Rambam himself has, in effect, left us with the clear impression that indeed teshuva relates only to specifically defined sins.

7          See Lecture #5 of this series for more on this consideration.

 

(Based on a transcript by Hillel Maizels, Saul Adler and Mordy Friedman.  This lecture was delivered at the Gruss Institute in Jerusalem in Tishrei 5763 [2002]

This adaptation has not been reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein.)

 

The lectures in this series have been collected into a book entitled, By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God.  It can be ordered from here: http://www.vbm-torah.org/ralbooks.htm.